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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 



Make] Projects 



Hacking R/C Power Outlets 

Written By: Andrew Wedgbury 



TOOLS: 


PARTS: 


Computer (1) 


R/C power outlet system (1) 


Screwdriver (1) 
Solderinq iron (1) 
Wire cutter/stripper (1) 


/ used a Maplin N19GN, which works for 
mains in the United Kinadom, and my 
code is tailored to its wireless protocol. 
You'll want to use a svstem with the 




appropriate power connectors and 




ratings for your country. 




USB Bit Whacker microcontroller board 




in 




part #DEV-00762 from SparkFun 




Electronics (http://sparkfun. com) 




Hookup wire (1) 



SUMMARY 

Switching plug-in appliances from your computer or microcontroller isn't difficult in theory, 
but doing it without turning your home into a potential deathtrap can be tricky. The safer way 
is to rely on remote control rather than wiring directly. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 



Step 1 — Hack your R/C power outlet. 






Remote Controlled Sockets 

with built-in timer (3-Pock) 






::'-'ji 55 




^ '''•■'• 




^ / ^ 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 

• Here's how I reverse-engineered and modified an inexpensive R/C power outlet switching 
system so that it can control a practically unlimited number of AC-powered devices 
wirelessly from a computer. This flexible setup lets me switch appliances on and off via 
the internet and run programs that switch them automatically at certain times of the day. 

• I had the idea for this project after buying a set of remote controlled power outlets from my 
local electronics store. Quite a few of these systems are available; they use radio 
frequencies, so you don't need line-of-sight like you would with IR remote systems, and 
some are even housed in waterproof casings for installing outside. They all work on the 
same principle: you plug an appliance through the R/C outlet unit into a regular power 
outlet, and then the remote lets you switch power to the appliance on and off. 

• The set I bought has 3 outlet units and a remote control with On/Off buttons for each 
outlet, plus a master button pair that switches all outlets at once. You assign the buttons to 
the remote by pressing a Learn button on the outlet and then pressing the On button on the 
remote that you want to associate with it. If you wish, you can train multiple outlets to 
respond to the same button pair. 

• I was impressed by this system and was keen to expand it to control more than just 3 
appliances. The instructions didn't mention whether multiple sets would work without 
interference, but I noticed that if you left the remote's battery disconnected for a while, you 
had to retrain all the outlet units. 

• The only explanation I could think of for this was that the remote generates a new unique 
identifier when it powers up, which the outlet units store during the learning process. If so, 
this was a good sign, as it suggested that you could co-locate 2 or more sets (and other 
similar devices), provided that their remotes used different identifiers. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 



Step 2 



Unused button pads 9V battery connector Connection to radio board below Wire link on 

underside of board 




• So far so good, except that you'd still need a separate remote for every 3 units, which 
would get out of hand if you wanted to control a lot of devices. To find better alternatives, I 
opened up the remote control unit. The main circuit board housed button pads, an Elan 
EM78P153SNJ microcontroller (MCU), a 5V regulator, and an LED; underneath it sat 
another board with the radio transmitter circuit and antenna. 

• There was enough room inside the remote to hold a small microcontroller board. A 
microcontroller wired to the button contacts could then simulate button presses on the 
remote, and you could plug its USB interface into a computer to pass switching control 
over to the computer. 

• Also, the main board had unused pads for an extra pair of buttons, so it looked like you 
could easily wire the remote to control 4 devices instead of 3. By wiring into the remote 
like this, you don't need to modify the power outlet units at all; they remain safely intact 
with all their approvals (FCC, CE, UL, etc.). 

• But 4 devices per remote still isn't much, so I decided instead to try and intercept the data 
signals being sent from the remote's microcontroller to the radio transmitter circuit on the 
board underneath. If I could decode these signals, then I could also generate my own 
signals and control lots more devices, if the protocol allowed it. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 



Step 3 — Splice in. 



Connection to radio board below Wire link on 


ii*^ 


• 




• 




Data signal figrn MCU to radio transmitter 


,.,,,„.,,„ .> 





• To decode and hopefully generate R/C signals, I used a USB Bit Whacker microcontroller 
from SparkFun Electronics. The remote's main board and the Bit Whacker both use 5V 
DC, and I knew I would be running the Bit Whacker off USB power, so I connected power 
and ground between the Bit Whacker and the remote board, on the 5V side of its voltage 
regulator. This eliminated the need for the battery, by powering the remote over USB, and 
it also made room for the Bit Whacker, which fit neatly in the battery's place. 

• I needed to make 2 more connections to splice the Bit Whacker between the main board 
and the transmitter so that it could intercept the signal. The yellow dotted line in the picture 
shows this data connection. 

• To intercept this connection, I simply severed a wire on the underside of the main board, 
soldered leads to each endpoint, and ran them to pins BO and B1 on the Bit Whacker. The 
pink wire feeds the remote's original button-press signals into the Bit Whacker's Pin B1, 
and the yellow wire from Pin BO sends signals generated by the Bit Whacker to the 
transmitter circuit board. 

• I found that the Bit Whacker board could be glued inside the lid at the rear of the remote, 
where I cut out a rectangular hole for the USB port. With this modification, removing the 
battery compartment cover reveals the Bit Whacker (red board in pictures). 

• Once the modifications to the remote were complete, I turned to the software side of 
things. I would use the Bit Whacker to determine what the signals sent to the radio 
transmitter looked like, and then hopefully generate my own working signals by following 
the same protocol. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 
Step 4 — Crack the code. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 




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■ The Bit Whacker is a fantastically 
simple but versatile little board, 
consisting of a PIC18F2553 
microcontroller plus a few 
supporting components: an 
oscillator, reset and program 
buttons, status LEDs, and a USB 
socket. It comes already 
programmed with firmware based 
on the Microchip USB framework 
that makes the device appear as a 
serial port (the firmware can also 
be updated over USB if desired). 

' You can control it by sending text- 
based commands using a terminal 
program such as Hyperterminal, or 
by writing your own program that 
talks to the serial port. A full set of 
commands is available to control 
the port pins and perform various 
other functions. 

' It was time to apply this 
functionality to eavesdrop on the 
remote. I considered sampling the 
signal to the remote's transmitter at 
regular intervals, but the PIC's 
memory was too small to store 
very many samples. Because the 
signal was probably digital (On or 
Off), I figured it would be more 
efficient to simply record the times 
between its state changes. 

1 To do this, I needed to make some 

modifications to the Bit Whacker's 

firmware, adding a new command 

that uses one of the PIC's timers to 

Page 7 of 15 



Hacking R/C Power Outlets 

count the clock ticks, then write out 
and reset the value whenever input 
pin B1 changes. You can download 
this code here . 
• The Bit Whacker appears as a USB 
serial port. I connected to it with a 
terminal window, experimented with 
the remote buttons, and then 
analyzed the data that the Bit 
Whacker was putting out. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 



Step 5 





Zl = XI - Yl 


Z1 = X1-Y1 


Z1 = X1-Y1 




Z2 = X2 - Y2 


Z2 = X2 - Y2 


Z2 = X2-Y2 




Z3 = X3 - Y3 


Z3 = X3 - Y3 


Z3 = X3-Y3 




Z4 = X4-Y4 


Z4 = X4-Y4 


Z4 = X4 - Y4 


s-,-*™ 








J LAjiJuuiJiJLrLAJULJuiJiJi_rLnjTJi^^ 

















• I found that each button press generates a long start pulse followed by a fixed pattern of 25 
pulses, which together act as a "get ready to receive" signal, followed by a variable pattern 
of 64 pulses encoding 8 bytes of data. The start pulse is 3.6ms, and all subsequent pulses 
are 0.5ms. The gaps between pulses are either long (0.8ms), representing binary 0, or 
short (0.5ms), representing binary 1. 

• The way that the outlet unit's switching commands were encoded in these 8 bytes of data 
was not as simple as I had anticipated. Through further detective work, I found that the 8 
bytes are decoded by the outlets into messages 4 bytes long. 

• Two of the 4 decoded bytes represent an identifier or the remote, which it picks randomly 
when it powers up and sends with each command (as I had guessed). Because this is a 
16-bit value, it potentially allows for addressing up to 65,536 sets of outlet units. A third 
decoded byte conveys the power-switching command itself. 

• The remaining decoded byte is a counter value that increments with each command sent. 
This counter value obfuscated my code-breaking efforts, since it results in different data 
being sent every time the same button is pressed. But the outlet units don't actually check 
the counter value, and they respond to data encoded using the same counter value 
repeatedly. 

• The decoding scheme for the transmission was fairly simple. If you designate the 8-byte 
transmission as composed of bytes X1 to X4 followed by Y1 to Y4, you derive the decoded 
bytes Z1 to Z4 by subtracting each byte pairwise (shown in picture 2). Decoded byte Z1 is 
the counter, byte Z3 is the command, and bytes Z2 and Z4 make up the 2-byte identifier 
for the remote. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 
Step 6 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 

• When I started programming the Bit Whacker to work the other way — encoding 
commands for transmission to the outlets — I found it was more complicated than simply 
picking byte values for X and Y that generated the right Zs. Instead, various relationships 
between the absolute values of the 8 encoded bytes had to be present in order for the 
outlet unit to accept the commands. 

• There's no serious encryption going on here, but all the internal arithmetic relationships act 
as a parity check, making it extremely unlikely for the outlet units to be triggered by 
random noise or interference from other systems. 

• The calculations below show how this encoding works. Note that all encoding and decoding 
operations are single byte (mod 256), which means that the value wraps around to when 
incremented past 255 (see picture 1). 

• The decoded command byte, Z3, has several possible values. Most of them correspond to 
buttons on the remote control, but through testing I also found several other command 
values which the outlet units respond to. The most notable is 0x64, which appears to affect 
only units that are currently off, switching them on for a brief moment and then off again. 

• Photo 2 lists all the commands that I was able to determine, as single byte values in 2-digit 
hexadecimal notation. There are commands to independently switch up to 4 units per 
remote, so given the number of possible identifiers, this allows 262,144 individual outlets 
to be controlled! 

• This information enabled me to encode and inject my own data to be transmitted to the 
outlet units. To accomplish this, I made some further modifications to the Bit Whacker 
firmware, so that it would generate waveforms comparable with those produced by the 
remote. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 



Step 7 — Customize the remote outlet control application. 

• The final part of the project was to write a computer application in C++ to control the units, 
as it wasn't very convenient having to enter commands into a serial console. 

• While developing my first version of the program, I found that if you called it twice in rapid 
succession, say, to switch multiple devices at the same time, the opening and closing of 
the USB port would sometimes fail. So I split the program into 2 separate processes: a 
server, which runs all the time in the background, holding the serial port open and 
managing the flow of commands; and a command-line client, which sends commands to 
the server. 

• I used TCP/IP sockets as the communication method, which lets the server and client run 
on different machines if desired. 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 
Step 8 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 




• You can download the application, 
Remote Outlet Control here . The 
screen capture shows the 
application running on Windows. 
The electrical socket icon in the 
system tray indicates that the 
server process is running. 

• To create the toolbar at the bottom, 
I selected New Toolbar from the 
regular toolbar's right-click menu. 
Then I created the Lamp shortcuts 
on the desktop and the Fan 
shortcuts on the toolbar and 
entered the command-line program 
name, outletctl, and its required 
arguments (device_iD [ 0- 
65535], button [a, b, c, 

d, all ], and state [on, 
off]) in the Target box. I also 
chose an appropriate icon using the 
Change Icon button. (I created all 
of the application's icons using 
Inkscape.) 

• For the scheduled tasks shown, I 
dragged the desired shortcuts into 
the Scheduled Tasks window, 
under Control Panel/Administrative 
Tools. This pane supports 
numerous scheduling options, but if 
it isn't flexible enough, you can 
also call the program from a batch 
file or scripting language of your 
choice (I'd recommend Perl). 

• There's a great deal of potential in 
these off- the-shelf remote outlet 



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Hacking R/C Power Outlets 



This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 22 . page 70. 



systems; their availability and 
relatively low cost makes them 
ideal for any electronic projects 
that need to switch plug-in 
appliances. 
• This project highlights just one way 
of using them, and I've tried to 
keep my modifications as general 
as possible so they're useful to 
others. Hopefully I've shown how 
easy it can be to interface with 
these systems, and how, by 
understanding a bit about how they 
work, you can make them work the 
way you want them to! 



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